Writing rubrics for exercises

The world of ELT course materials can claim to have produced one of the most notorious text type features known to teachers and learners. I can’t think of any other written English where you’d read a sentence like this: ‘Match 1-8 to a-h’. It is of course taken from an exercise like this one:

exercise with rubric

Rubrics (or what American ELT writers would call ‘Direction lines’) are strange examples of English and yet they fill our course materials. Here are a few others you’ll have come across:

  • Work in pairs.
  • Compare with a partner
  • Answer questions 1 to 3.
  • Match the sentences.
  • Write the verbs in brackets in the sentences.
  • You are going to listen to a presentation about an airport terminal….

For writers, they are also one of the most notoriously difficult aspects of ELT materials to write. ELT author Ceri Jones comments: “Rubrics writing is probably one of the most important skills to learn: Be concise, specific and unambiguous.  Rubrics are the signposts, the scaffolding that holds the material together, and helps make sense of it.”

Consistency is another area which authors can stray from, especially if they are writing a full-length course book and have to maintain the rubric style over many units. That’s where editors tend to step in and save the day. Editor Katy Wright says although it’s an editorial job to decide on the actual exact phrasing, it is the author’s responsibility to present clear rubrics in draft material and to follow the golden rule of one student ‘action’ per rubric. This means avoiding conjunctions and extra clauses in the rubric.

Rubric writing is also a good test of whether an exercise works. Here’s more good advice from Katy Wright: “If the rubric is very complicated and difficult to understand, then the task is probably not suitable for published course material (although might be fine for a methodology book).”

In this quote, Katy raises the issue of ‘voice’ in rubrics when she suggests that a rubric in a student book is not the same as a rubric in a methodology (or teacher’s) book. So how does the ‘voice’ of a rubric change? For a methodology book you can allow for a more chatty, teacher-to-teacher style though still keeping the instruction succinct.

This ‘voice’ changes with self-study materials such as workbooks or online content. There’s no teacher available to interpret the information but at the same time the student needs to feel the voice is friendly. Ceri Jones adds:  “You need to establish a personal relationship with the participants as there is no-one else to mediate the materials. It requires a warmer, more informal voice.”

This is in contrast to writing rubrics for a classroom course book (paper-based or digital) which will be applied by a teacher in a classroom (face-to-face or online) and it requires a more neutral tone. Author Ben Goldstein who also trains ELT writers comments: “One common mistake that I’ve found new authors make is to replicate the voice of the teacher [in their rubrics], e.g. “Now, it’s not easy, but where do you think the photo was taken.. go on… have a guess!”. In other words, they often write what they would say to the class. However, rubric such as this “Where do you think the photo was taken?” or “Guess where the photo was taken.” gets the job done and is a more friendly and supportive.

In other words, it’s about the teacher creating rapport, not the course book. Surprisingly, you can pick up a variety of course materials on the market from different publishers and whilst there is some consistency, you’ll also see a range of styles, especially over changing levels. Which style or rubric do prefer in your materials? Direct and impersonal? Friendly and chatty? One teacher even commented recently in a webinar I delivered on this topic: ‘Why do we need rubrics? Isn’t it obvious what to do?”

Categories: Materials Writers

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3 replies

  1. I was looking at a chapter in a new coursebook today aimed for Elementary adult learners and there was following:

    “Discuss the following questions:
    a. How important is space travel?
    b. …”

    Rubrics are essentially difficult to write but I suppose writing clear stages and language suitable for students to complete or action are also difficult. Where do you start with Elementary learners when they are still learning basic nouns and verbs? The style of questions and activities are incredibly conceptual and are perhaps unsuitable for students from particular countries.

    Another thing that really annoys me as a teacher is the whole definition of grammar points for students in their coursebook when the language is written as if the learner is a linguist or grammarian. Keep the language simple and easy for students to understand. Don’t make it wholly complicated that you will need a PhD in grammar to work out the intricacies of the English language.

    • Hi Martin. Thanks for commenting.
      Personally, I think the key to Elementary levels (and above) is – firstly – to try and repeat the rubric so students get used to it – for example if you want them to do pairwork then good rubrics never change. Inexperienced writers sometimes switch between different rubrics such as ‘work in pairs’, ‘work with a partner’, ‘talk to the person next to you’. The trick it to make sure you always use the same one and keep it short. Then – secondly – I’d say always give an example of what the output task is. So either do number one as an example or provide the first part of the type of conversation you expect students to have (which your example about space travel half does – and I can’t imagine many students can talk about this for very long in their own language???).

      For me, if you have to start writing a complex rubric with language that students don’t have yet, then it’s probably likely that the task is conceptually too hard. The general rule is that if you need rubrics with more than three (and preferably two) sentences, then it’s probably best to cut the exercise.

      I completely agree with you about grammar explanations in some course books. In some materials there seems to be a feeling that grammar explanations must almost be made more difficult to make them feel like ‘grammar’! Less is definitely more.


  1. 5 stupid things we do in ELT | Simple English ~ Nicola Prentis

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